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It's that rare found-footage film with a strong premise, a memorably eccentric style, and plenty of energy to burn. It's also poorly conceived, and hard…

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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Robert Duvall: "Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that"

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• Roger Ebert / August 25, 1983

They honored Robert Duvall the other night at the Festival of Festivals in Toronto, dedicating their annual Tribute to an actor's actor who is only now entering into stardom after two decades of great character performances.

Duvall was accompanied onstage by Gene Siskel and me, on a guided tour of clips from a lot of his best movies, and when we got to one of his key scenes in "The Godfather" (1971), you could have heard a pin drop.

The scene was the famous one where Duvall, as Tom Hagen, Don Corleone's trusted family lawyer, goes to Hollywood to persuade a studio boss to give Johnny Fontane, the mob-connected singer, a starring role in a movie. "Godfather" fans will recall that the sequence ends with the boss refusing Hagen's request, and waking up the next morning in the same bed with the severed head of his beloved racehorse.

Anyway, when the scene was over, Duvall got to talking about the film's director, Francis Coppola.

"It's not widely known that when Coppola made 'The Godfather,' the studio had a substitute director standing by at all times," Duvall said. "One false move and Francis would have been replaced. That was incredible pressure for him to work under. It's a great picture, but under the circumstances it's a miracle he even finished it. As for Francis himself, he's like a kid with an all-day sucker. He wants his Hollywood studio, and a vineyard in Northern California, and an apartment in Paris. He's a great director, but he loves all his toys."

All this could be checked out, at first hand, because Coppola himself was a surprise guest, lurking in the back of the theater. Wearing a Panama hat, he marched down the aisle, took a seat on the stage and shared his notions of acting, directing, Duvall and "The Godfather."

"That was a strange scene to show," Coppola said, "because in the long shot it isn't even Bobby. We shot Bobby's scenes on the East Coast, and for the West Coast exteriors we used a double."

"You can tell," Duvall said, "because he doesn't have my bow-legs."

Coppola and Duvall began remembering moments from "The Godfather," especially an early rehearsal dinner.

"I assembled the whole cast for a dinner at Pearl's restaurant in New York," Coppola said. "There they all were -- Brando eating everything in sight, and Pacino looking tragic, and Duvall doing his Brando imitations every time Marlon turned his back. It was like the Corleone family having dinner. It was that night I knew the picture would work."

After two more clips from "Godfather, Part Two," we viewed perhaps the most famous single scene Coppola or Duvall has ever been involved with: The beach landing in "Apocalypse Now" that begins with a flight of helicopters playing Richard Wagner over loudspeakers, and ends with Duvall's famous line: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It seems like . . . victory!"

"One take," Coppola said. "We did that scene in one take, the first take."

That made it all the more extraordinary, because the scene is not only an exercise in logistics, but a demonstration of physical courage. While jets thunder overhead, helicopters make close passes and shells go off within yards of Duvall, he remains totally unaffected. He doesn't even twitch an eyelash at the special effects explosions, and marches around on the sand talking obsessively about the great surfing beach he has just occupied.

"There wasn't any time to think," Duvall said. "I heard over the intercom that we only had the use of the jets for 20 minutes. One fly-by and that was it. I just got completely into the character, and if he wouldn't flinch, I wouldn't flinch."

As Duvall reviewed his career from "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1963) to "Tender Mercies" (1983), his acting approach was clearly revealed: He believes in giving himself over to the character. He talked about spending time with homicide cops before making "The Detective" (1968), and hanging out with good ol' boys from Texas to find his character, a country singer, for "Tender Mercies."

"Not to brag, but I got calls from Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson telling me I had the character just right," he said.

Robert Duvall has long been known as an accomplished actor, but the range of his acting career was dramatized by the three-hour program. The scenes ranged from "True Grit" (he faced John Wayne in that great shoot-out in the mountain meadow) to "The Chase" (Duvall and Brando) to George Lucas' "THX 1138" (Duvall as a puzzled automaton) to Robert Altman's "MASH" (Duvall's love scene with Hot Lips) to "True Confessions" (Duvall as a cop, Robert DeNiro as his brother, a priest) and "The Great Santini" (Duvall as a military pilot who demands perfection from his family).

Two things stood out as the scenes marched past; Duvall never plays the same character twice, and he makes other actors look good. He brings a quality to his listening, his reactions, that charges a scene even when he's not talking.

One of the movies shown at Toronto was unfamiliar. It was "Tomorrow," a 1972 adaptation of a William Faulkner short story. The movie was never widely released, but Duvall says his performance in it, as a poor dirt farmer that loves and loses a woman and her child, is the one he likes best. "It's got the most of me in it," he said.

And what, at mid-career, what has he learned about acting? "Give yourself completely to the moment."

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#29 September 22, 2010

Marie writes: Club member and noted blog contributor Tom Dark took this astonishing photograph near his home in Abiqui, New Mexico. The "unknown entity" appeared without warning and after a failed attempt to communicate, fled the scene. Tom stopped short of saying "alien" to describe the encounter, but I think it's safe to say that whatever he saw, it was pretty damned freaky. It sure can't be mistaken for anything terrestrial; like a horse pressing its nose up to the camera and the lens causing foreshortening. As it totally does not look like that at all. (click to enlarge.)

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50 greatest music films ever

Barbie as Karen in "Superstar."

Maybe there should just be a category in the right column for "Lists." Here's one from the film and music writers of Time Out London (which will always be the only real Time Out) called "50 greatest music films ever except for 'Spinal Tap'." No, I added those last four words, but the editors explain in their intro that "we’re celebrating great films – dramas and documentaries – about real musicians."

As if David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls never actually toured in the flesh? As if they aren't at least as "real" as, say, KISS or the Monkees or Hootie and the Blowfish, which contained no one named "Hootie" and nobody named "Blowfish." (BTW, the Ramones weren't really "Ramones"! Those were just stage names!) Oh, and Gus Van Sant's "Last Days" was about a guy named "Blake." Michael Pitt looked like Kurt Cobain, but it was only about Cobain in the sense that "Velvet Goldmine" is about Bowie or Iggy Pop or Lou Reed, or "Grace of My Heart" is about Carole King or Brian Wilson or any of the Brill Building writers (even though a lot of them wrote songs for the movie). Then there's "'Round Midnight" (which is on the list) with Dexter Gordon playing Dale Turner, a fictionalized version of Bud Powell...

View image Downey, CA: "What happened?" Third shot of "Superstar." Compare to second shot of "Zodiac" -- establishing a neighborhood, from a car on the street...

So, OK: No "Spinal Tap." But no "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco"? No "You're Gonna Miss Me: A Film About Roky Erickson"? No "Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser"? No "X: The Unheard Music"? No "The Girl Can't Help It"? No "Wattstax"? No "Woodstock"? No "The Kids are Alright"? No "No Direction Home"? No "The Buddy Holly Story"? No "Theramin: An Electronic Odyssey"? No "Heart of Gold"? No "The Filth and the Fury"? No "We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen"? No "La Bamba"? No "Kurt and Courtney"? See how much fun this is? Really, though, I'd substitute any of these for several of the selections on the list.

But, OK, many of my favorites are included: "24 Hour Party People," "Jazz on a Summer's Day," "Stop Making Sense," "DIG!," "Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor" (his autobiography, "Straight Life," is the best account of addiction I've ever read), "The Decline of Western Civilization Parts I and II (The Metal Years)"...

View image No one here gets out alive.

At the toppermost of the poppermost: Todd Haynes' 1987 "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," a 45-minute lo-fi "dramatization" that was never officially released because of music clearance troubles (that is, brother Richard wouldn't let Haynes use any Carpenters tunes). Still, after 20 years as an "underground" item, it's available from Google Video here. It's something you really need to see: a documentary-style biopic of Karen Carpenter performed mostly by Barbie dolls. Yes, its a parody (so are most musical biopics, including others on the list -- see the upcoming Jake Kasdan/Judd Apatow picture, "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" for more on that score). But it presents straightforward facts about anorexia that could have been excerpted from any PBS or 16mm educational doc of the period. It's also a formula showbiz melodrama. But for all the layers of artifice, like Haynes' Sirk opera "Far from Heaven," it becomes strangely, hypnotically -- and genuinely -- moving. Prepare yourself for Haynes' Dylan fantasia, "I'm Not There," by watching "Superstar" and "Velvet Goldmine."

ASIDE: From an interview with Haynes at The Reeler: I actually think that it's easier for people who know less about Dylan to go with it, if they're up for something different. Clearly, that's the first thing: Whether you know Dylan or not, you have to surrender to the movie to have a good time at all and get anything out of it. If you have a lot of Dylanisms in your head, it's kind of distracting, because you're sitting there with a whole second movie going on. You're annotating it as you go. It's kind of nice to sit back and let it take you. I think people get it: Even if you don't know which are the true facts and which are the fictional things, and when we're playing with fact and fiction, from the tone of it, you know that it's playing around with real life. In a way, that's what biopics always do. They just don't tell you that they're doing it, and they don't make it part of the fun. You have to follow the Johnny Cash story and just sort of think, "This is what really happened." Of course, you know it's being dramatized, but you're not in on the joke. You're not in on the game of that. In this movie, at least, you get tipped off to it.Oh yeah, but about that list. Here it is. Make of it what you will:

1 "Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story" (Todd Haynes, 1987) 2 "Don't Look Back" (DA Pennebaker, 1967) -- Bob Dylan 3 "Gimme Shelter" (David Maysles/Albert Maysles/Charlotte Zwerin, 1970) --Rolling Stones 4 "24 Hour Party People" (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) -- Manchester scene 5 "Topsy-Turvy" (Mike Leigh, 1999) -- Gilbert and Sullivan 6 "Monterey Pop" (DA Pennebaker, 1968) -- concert 7 "Be Here to Love Me" (Margaret Brown, 2004) -- Townes Van Zandt 8 "Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould" (Francois Girard, 1993) -- Glenn Gould 9 "Cocksucker Blues" (Robert Frank, 1972) -- Rolling Stones 10 "Bird" (Clint Eastwood, 1988) -- Charlie Parker 11 "The Last Waltz" (Martin Scorsese, 1978) -- The Band & Friends farewell concert 12 "Rude Boy" (Jack Hazan, David Mingay, 1980) -- The Clash 13 "Scott Walker: 30 Century Man" (Stephen Kijak, 2006) -- Scott Walker 14 "Bound for Glory" (Hal Ashby, 1976) -- Woody Guthrie 15 "The Decline of Western Civilization Parts I & II" (Penelope Spheeris, 1981, 1988) -- LA punk; '80s metal & hair bands 16 "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005) -- Daniel Johnston 17 "Sweet Dreams" (Karel Reisz, 1982) -- Patsy Cline 18 "Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor" (Don McGlynn, 1982) -- Art Pepper 19 "Elgar" (Ken Russell, 1962) -- Edward Elgar 20 "Rust Never Sleeps" (Neil Young, 1979) -- Neil Young 21 "The Future is Unwritten" (Julien Temple, 2006) -- Joe Strummer 22 "DiG!" (Ondi Timoner, 2004) -- Brian Jonestown Massacre, Dandy Warhols 23 "Some Kind Of Monster" (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, 2004) -- Metallica 24 "A Hard Day's Night" (Richard Lester, 1964) -- The Beatles 25 "Jimi Hendrix" (Joe Boyd, 1973) -- Jimi Hendrix(more)

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